Tron: Legacy: 4 (out of 10)

In short: Tron: Legacy looks and sounds good, but I was not impressed.

I should state up front that I am a huge fan of the original Tron. It's not just that the movie was visually distinctive and imaginative, as most people remember - though believe me, it sure was memorable. No, what I've been impressed with is the quality and quantity of insightful metaphors into the state of computing. The movie and its world were at heart based on the technology of 1982 (specifically the VMS operating system); and while the world of computing has certainly changed dramatically over the last three decades, the influence of those old technologies is still strong. Every time I watch the movie, I see the parallels between the ideas presented and the movie and modern computing technologies and ideas - and that's 28 years later! The plot may have been thin, the characters shallow, and the whole thing may be a half hour too long, but it never ceases to amaze me as the film-makers of my childhood muse on the ideas of modern technology. The metaphors made the movie.

Given this bias, I must also admit that I didn't exactly come into Tron: Legacy with high hopes. After all, how could a sequel today even try to work with the same material?

Still, there were definitely good parts mixed into the movie. First of all, there's Daft Punk's soundtrack. The original film's score was nearly as iconic as the movie's visuals; the sequel's score is at least as good, remaining faithful to its predecessor while also taking significant advantage of the band's distinct electronic sound (with just a touch of Vangelis for good measure). In retrospect, Daft Punk's entire body of work was leading up to scoring this movie, and they knocked it out of the park. Hiring them was the most brilliantly inspired moment in the film's creation.

The visual effects were also suitably spectacular. I liked the decision to make the Real World mostly 2D and the Grid mostly 3D; the mix came off fairly subtly and actually made the 3D augment the visuals rather than replacing them, most impressively by offering a feeling of semi-transparency to the buildings and vehicles throughout the movie. As the visual design itself - well, yes, they copied that pretty nicely from the first movie, and updated it effectively. The orange-with-some-blue landscapes were always beautiful, and the action scenes within them were clear and spectacular. All-in-all, the VFX were what I was hoping for (though, admittedly, not as far "advanced for their time" as the original Tron's effects were back in its day).

One last truly positive part probably fits into the above category: the Light-Cycle Arena sequence. The scene may not have been all that well integrated into the movie, but it was nevertheless an impressive spectacle. This time, the action was less reminiscent of 'Snake' and 'SNAFU', and more reminiscent of squad-combat version of Mario Kart's Battle Mode. I could watch a whole movie about this Team Light-Cycle Battle, and I certainly hope that another sub-genre gets developed.

So those are the good bits. They were honestly strong enough that the movie would probably be worth watching for those parts alone. But those elements don't exist in a vacuum, and the poor implementation of the rest of the film drags the whole work back down below average.

The number one issue dragging everything else down was the story. To be fair, I think there is a story in there, and a potentially interesting one at that; the problem is in how that story was told. Unfortunately, the story is too complicated for its own good, necessitating far too many expository info-dumps to explain the background, the motivations, and the parties involved. This not only violated the "show, don't tell" principle, but it didn't even convey enough information to understand the issues in depth, and certainly not to care about them.

For example: over the course of the movie we learn a fair amount about the background of Quorra (Olivia Wilde) - her powers, her history, and her relevance to the world. But, oddly, she is not compelling - she's in the way more than anything, and even her acts of badass-ery feel tacked on. There were two problems: we simply don't have enough context to care about that background, and we also don't have any understanding of how her actions and personality compare to other natives of the Grid. All we know is that she's supposed to be important; that's not enough to sustain her character.

My other major gripe is that, well, the metaphors just don't hold up. Sure, the movie was clearly aiming at some metaphors for modern computing - primarily "complex systems evolve in unpredictable ways" - but we are once again told rather than shown, much to the viewer's chagrin. Instead, we're left with standard Hollywood plot stories - there is power in danger in evolution, we choose our own families, you must stand up for what you believe in instead of watching from the sidelines, etc. I can't see anybody being interested in watching this movie in 25 years (5? 1?) to learn anything about their own world. And that's a shame.

And of course there's the standard problem with Hollywood blockbusters: dedication to the short-term demographics, looking at what "tests well" rather than what makes a good movie. For example, the light cycles were simply over-played. The story moves from light-cycles, to a light-SUV with light-missiles, and eventually to to light-fighter jets with light-turrets - and all the while, we didn't explore the updated Recognizers or Tanks at all, let alone the Solar Sailer. This made the "updated technology" feel of the movie seem too narrow to be real or interesting.

(Connected to this, the "super powers" of the Users (humans) seemed to be de-emphasized. Flynn seemed in the first movie to have the equivalent of "super-user" powers on the system - he could fix things that others couldn't fix, influence things that others couldn't influence, and generally was able to "hack" his way through the system where other programs could not. At first, I thought this had just been taken out entirely, or and that Flynn's powers were unique to the Grid of the first movie; but every now and again, there was some indication that the Users still had these powers, usually manifested by changing the background colors around them when they are present. But this was under-played, and didn't affect the plot in a meaningful way; I think I would rather have seen it left out entirely.)

At any rate - this was not a good movie, but nor was it terrible. It did, at least, surpass my expectations; but it was a long way from reaching anything that I was hoping. I'll still see the third movie, when it inevitably comes out, but my hopes have been appropriately calibrated.

If you're on the fence about this movie, go watch the original first (or again). If you're still interested afterwards, go ahead and see this. Otherwise, go see one of the many legitimately good movies currently in theatres.

Rating: 4/10 (** out of 4)

My Theory About The Metaphor

Software is meant to be free, and big corporations that try to sell their software are bad. But when the software is free, it runs roughshod over the world, working as a virus to infect all other programs (especially works more creative than itself), and waiting for its chance to break out into the wider network. And eventually, this freedom will destroy the programmers that built it into the system.

I guess that means that Tron: Legacy is about the GNU Public License.
If so, then yes, that means that Clu represents Richard Stallman.

Side Notes

  • So, what could they have done differently with the plot? I see two paths that would have worked: they could have tightened the movie up substantially by cutting out a half hour or so, simplifying the plot and cutting sub-plots in the process, or they could have lengthened it dramatically. The former path would have required them to leave out most of the exposition entirely, and focus on a more concrete series of set-pieces; the latter path would change the story to a mini-series or short series of movies. But in either direction, we would have been offered more depth to the story, instead of a simple story stretched so tight over a basic skeleton.

  • I liked that Daft Punk themselves appeared in the movie, working as DJs in the virtual club (chat room?) with Michael Sheen. It still would have been better to drop the scene, mind, but at least there was something to laugh at.

  • For being the titular character, we only see Tron in a small handful of scenes, and in almost all of those we don't see his face. A lot of effort was put into de-aging Jeff Bridges; why didn't we do some de-ageing of Bruce Boxleitner?

  • Along these lines, the de-ageing effect for Jeff Bridges was, well, "off-putting" is the closest word I can think of. Mind, for much of the movie this was okay; off-putting may well have been the desired effect. But in the early scenes, taking place in 1989, the plastic expressions really detracted from the overall effort, and the clear attempts to film the character from behind was even worse. I don't know that there was a better option yet, but, regardless, the effect detracted from the film.

  • Why, oh why, was there no Bit? Yes, there were the allusions, but come on, he was fun!

  • Special recognition for awfulness has to go to Castor, Michael Sheen's character that is a cross between a carnival barker and those albinos from The Matrix Reloaded. The character was terrible, his scenes pointless, and the whole thing added nothing to the movie that couldn't have been accomplished with a line or two of dialogue.

  • I don't want to talk about the opening real-world plot. It was just pointless.

  • There were some Unix-y bits, and those amused me. Flynn's old workstation is running on an 'i386 sum4m' system running 'SolarOS' - and that's almost plausible. The OS running on his terminal is clearly a Unix derivative, and the commands run on there look almost good. But I don't remember a separate, stand-alone 'history' program separate from the shell... Aah, well. It was at least close.

  • Midnight shows are growing less-and-less worth the trouble. It was at least interesting to see that the first movie is still gaining friends, decades later. Most of that audience hadn't been born when the first movie came out.